'1984' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Big Brother poster from 1965 BBC production.
Big Brother poster from 1965 BBC production.

Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images

Written at a time when dictatorships and totalitarian regimes were establishing a hold over much of the world despite the defeat of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, in 1984 Orwell described what he saw as the inevitable outcome of any political movement that embraced authoritarianism and the cult of personality. Orwell was extremely frightened of political power being concentrated in a small number of individuals, correctly seeing it as a pathway to the loss of personal freedoms, and foresaw the technology that would make the erasure of those freedoms a simple task.

Totalitarianism

The most obvious and powerful theme of the novel is, of course, totalitarianism itself. A totalitarian state is one where there is only one political force legally permitted—all opposition to the state’s policies and actions is illegal, usually categorized as treason and met with violent retribution. This naturally stifles freedom of expression and makes change within the system impossible. In democratic societies, opposition groups can form political parties, express their ideas freely, and force the state to address concerns or be replaced. In a totalitarian society, this is impossible.

Orwell’s Oceania goes further than even most existing totalitarian states. Where real-world authoritarian leaders seek to restrict information and control their populations in terms of their physical movements and spoken or written communication, Orwell’s government of the future seeks to inhibit thought itself and alter information at the source. Newspeak is a language invented by the state specifically to make independent thought literally impossible, and even Winston’s physical surroundings are designed to inhibit his freedoms, like the way his small apartment is dominated by the enormous two-way television screen, crowding him into a corner he incorrectly believes offers him some degree of privacy.

That illusion is crucial to Orwell’s theme, as he strives to demonstrate that in a truly totalitarian society all freedom is in fact an illusion. Winston believes he finds ways to resist and meaningfully fight back against repression, all of which turn out to be gambits controlled by the state. Orwell argues that people who imagine they would heroically resist such a repressive regime are kidding themselves.

Control of Information

A crucial aspect of Oceania’s control over the citizenry is its manipulation of information. Workers at the Ministry of Truth actively adjust newspapers and books on a daily basis to match the ever-changing version of history that suits the purposes of the state. Without any kind of reliable source of facts, Winston and anyone who, like him, is dissatisfied or concerned about the state of the world, has only their vague feelings on which to base their resistance. More than simply a reference to Joseph Stalin’s practice of literally airbrushing people out of historical records, this is a chilling demonstration of how a lack of information and accurate data renders people powerless. Winston daydreams of a past that never actually existed and sees it as the goal of his rebellion, but since he lacks any real information, his rebellion is meaningless.

Consider how he is tricked into overtly betraying the state by O’Brien. All the information Winston has about the Brotherhood and Emmanuel Goldstein is fed to him by the state itself. He has no idea if any of it is true—if the Brotherhood even exists, if there is even a man named Emmanuel Goldstein.

Destruction of the Self

Winston’s torture at the end of the novel is not simply punishment for his Thoughtcrimes and incompetent attempts to rebel; the purpose of the torture is to eradicate his sense of self. This is the ultimate goal of totalitarian regimes according to Orwell: A complete subservience to the goals, needs, and ideas of the state.

The torture Winston undergoes is designed to destroy his individuality. In fact, every aspect of life in Oceania is designed to achieve this goal. Newspeak is designed to prevent negative thoughts or any thought that is not approved or generated by the state. The Two-Minutes Hate and the presence of Big Brother posters promote a sense of homogeneous community, and the presence of Thought Police—especially the children, who have been raised in the poisoned environment of the totalitarian state and who function as credulous and uncritical servants of its philosophy—prevents any sort of trust or true kinship. In fact, the Thought Police do not have to actually exist to achieve this goal. Simply the belief that they do is sufficient to inhibit any individual expression, with the ultimate result that the self is subsumed into Groupthink.

Symbols

Big Brother. The most powerful and recognizable symbol from the book—recognized even by people who have not read it—is the looming image of Big Brother on posters everywhere. The posters obviously symbolize the power and omniscience of the party, but they are only ominous to those who retain any kind of individual thought. For those fully assimilated into the party line, Big Brother is not an ironic term—he is seen as a protector, a kindly older sibling keeping them from harm, whether it be the threat of outside forces, or the threat of unmutual thoughts.

Proles. Winston is obsessed with the lives of the proles, and fetishizes the red-armed prole woman as his main hope for the future, because she represents the potentially overwhelming power of numbers as well as a mother who will bear future generations of free children. It is notable that Winston’s best hope for the future takes the responsibility from his hands—he is not the one counted on to deliver this ill-defined future, it is up to the proles to rise up. And if they do not, the implication is that it is because they are dull and lazy.

Telescreens. Another obvious symbol are the wall-sized televisions in every private space. This literal intrusion by the state is not a commentary on modern television, which did not exist in any meaningful way in 1948, but rather a symbol of the destructive and repressive power of technology. Orwell distrusted technology, and saw it as a grave danger to freedom.

Literary Devices

Limited Point of View. Orwell chooses to restrict our access to information by tying the narrative solely to Winston’s point of view. This is done specifically to keep the reader reliant on the information they are given, just as Winston is. This underscores the betrayal and shock that both feel when, for example, the Brotherhood is revealed to be fictional.

Plain Language. 1984 is written in a very plain style, with few flourishes or unnecessary words. While many students take this to mean Orwell was a humorless man, or who simply lacked the ability to write in an exciting way, the fact is the opposite: Orwell had such control over his art he was able to match his writing style precisely to the mood and setting. The novel is written in a sparse, grim style that perfectly matches and evokes the grim, unhappy, and hopeless setting. The reader experiences the same dull, plodding sense of mere existence that Winston does.